Vegan Boards

Vegan Boards is a gorgeous aspirational cookbook. I can’t imagine any friends, much less myself, who would go to the bother of arranging everything so beautifully. But the author certainly does make absolutely gorgeous displays, full of delicious looking vegan food. This is one of what I often call “Whole Foods cookbooks” wherein the ingredients tend to be fancy and expensive, and recipes look beautiful as well as delicious, but require extra work for preparation and presentation. Also, this isn’t exactly a health food cookbook. The author leans pretty heavily on processed vegan foods, especially vegan cheeses. Probably delicious, but certainly expensive, and not really very healthful.

The concepts for buffet style themed meals and snacks is always fun. So while I might not go to the effort of assembling a board, a breakfast burrito spread sounds both fun and delicious. So does a teriyaki cabbage wraps board or a loaded sweet potato fries board. Sweet potato breakfast bowls was something I’d never thought of before, but sounds like a great idea. I also liked the family movie night board and the loaded vegan chili board.

I did appreciate the recipes included for the various dishes called for in on some of the boards. Caramelized onion dip, cauliflower lentil balls, chickpea salad sandwiches, edamame mint dip, crispy spiced chickpeas, lemon artichoke dip, maple and date sweet potato dip, miso roasted Brussel sprouts, pistachio cabbage slaw, sweet potato brownie bowls, savory dill popcorn, and especially frosted cranberries all sound like they have potential to be delicious and certainly worth trying, whether as part of a fancy board, a regular meal, or just as stand alone snack.

Overall, I’m more likely to just try a few of the recipes from the small section in the back of the book, than to actually assemble any of the board. And then to otherwise just admire the pictures before returning the library book, or in this case, digital advanced copy. Thank you to #NetGalley and Quarto/ Harvard Common Press for sharing this pretty, if overly ambitious cookbook, #VeganBoards with me in exchange for an honest review.

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Wild Rain

Wild Rain by Beverly Jenkins is a solid, enjoyable Black historical romance between a tall handsome cinnamon roll reporter/ lawyer/ carpenter from DC and a biracial Black and Shoshone woman rancher from Wyoming who refuses to conform to social norms to make him or anyone else comfortable. Spring Lee is a survivor of sexual abuse, loss, and abandonment who has made her own way in the world, earning the money for land of her own and taking orders–or intimacy–from no one. But the quietly, calmly inquisitive Garrett McCray, a former slave and Union sailor, as well as a trained lawyer and practicing reporter and carpenter, wins her heart with his patience and gentleness and respect and acceptance of her for who she is. This wasn’t a super exciting story for me, despite the shooting, the attempted murder, and the attempted financial swindles. Instead, it felt more like Garrett himself–stable and supportive and encouraging and hopeful, full of interesting snippets of Black history and depictions of strong, successful Black men and women building relationships and community together.

Despite Wild Rain being the second in the Women Who Dare series by Jenkins, it is definitely also a follow up to Jenkin’s Tempest, from her Old West trilogy. I do think you’ll understand this story better if you’ve read Tempest before, although I honestly prefered this story more. I thought Spring was a much more nuanced and realistic character than the too-perfect Regan from Tempest, who makes an excellent supporting character this time around, along with her husband Colton Lee and their children and their extended town and family.

The diversity, as I would expect from Jenkins, is good. There are strong independent female characters as well as a primarily Black cast of characters, with some Native representation as well. No LGBTQ+ representation, and most if not all characters are able-bodied, but there’s definitely some #MeToo type themes of sexual abuse and violence in Spring’s past. The snippets of history that Jenkins includes throughout the book enrich our understanding of underrepresented history, from the role of Black sailors in Union naval efforts during the American Civil War to the public perception and outright bias against Natives from white and Black Americans, especially back on the East Coast, to women in Wyoming having the vote so much earlier than in the rest of the United States. There’s even mentions of Black newspapers and Black authors of the time, due to Garrett’s career, but also to his bookworm tendencies. I cheered a little when he mentioned reading Frederick Douglass’s third autobiography, a book that still resonates powerfully today. Jenkins strikes the delicate balance of acknowledging issues of race and bigotry and violence without weighing down this gentle love story.

So if you want a historical Western romance that avoids white supremacist tropes and acknowledges at least some issues of colonization, and if you want a sweet romance between two unconventional Black leads, this is the book for you. While there is violence, both past and present, within the plot, the focus is more on human relationships, between the two romantic leads, but also with the community around them.

Jenkins has said that she doesn’t know what character the third book in the Women Who Dare trilogy will feature. I’m personally rooting for Garrett’s friendly, confident sister. Either way, I look forward to reading what Ms Beverly writes next. Thank you to #NetGalley and Avon/ Harper for sharing a digital #advancedcopy of #WildRain with me in exchange for an honest review. 

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Sloth and Squirrel in a Pickle

Sloth and Squirrel in a Pickle by Cathy Ballou Mealey and Kelly Collier is a cute, silly little story about a squirrel and a sloth who take jobs doing pickle packing in order to raise money for a bicycle to share. These jobs work out about as well as you’d expect them to, but with an ingenious twist at the end. The art is fun and bright, and the two main characters accept each other for who they are, and work around their differences. Also, there’s a sloth and a grumpy peacock boss and lots of pickles. This is a fun book to share with kids.

Thanks to #NetGalley and Kids Can Press for sharing a temporary digital #advancedcopy of Sloth and Squirrel in a Pickle in exchange for an honest review.

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Elatsoe

Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger was one of my favorite reads of 2020. I checked it out from my library on impulse, and wasn’t expecting to love it so much, but I did. It brought me back to the wonder of reading books like Harry Potter for the first time, the immersion in a world both familiar and yet magically different, the tight-knit friendships. the struggle against a malevolent enemy–and you get all this in a book WITHOUT any transmisogyny or anti-Semitism or other problematic subtexts. Instead, you get a charming paranormal YA story, starring an ace (asexual) Lipan Apache girl whose magical gift involves raising dead animals, and her best friend, a blonde vegetarian cheerleading straight boy, and Elatsoe’s loyal ghost doggo. You get rich Apache lore and Indigenous culture and also vampires and other European magics. A magical system that is both wondrous and yet logical and realistically limited (like how using the magical fungi rings, while incredibly easy for travel, also bears an environmental cost) and often dangerous. There are scary human ghosts and creepy all white towns and tales of heroic Indigenous women and eerily beautiful undead natural/ animal worlds.

Yet through it all, you get love. Not romantic love. Elatsoe, or Ellie, is ace, as mentioned before, and her close friendship with Jay seems pretty solidly platonic. This lack of romantic focus turned out to be refreshing, though, allowing the focus to remain on the main story, grappling with grief while using means magical and otherwise to investigate the suspiciously sudden and tragic death of Ellie’s cousin, a young man with a wife and small child. You also get intense familial love. Ellie and her parents have one of the most refreshingly health parent/child relationships I’ve read depicted in a book. None of them are perfect, but they are loving and supportive and honest. They communicate, and set reasonable rules and boundaries. Ellie’s parents trust her and support her and value her abilities, and she is not alone in her investigation, with both Jay and her parents and extended family’s support. Even Jay’s family, his sister and his parents and aunt, seem supportive and loving, with healthy relationships.

My only caution for potential readers is that the depictions of grief are real and sad. Ellie’s cousin’s widow especially is angry and grief-stricken, and as someone who has lost family tragically and unexpectedly, this was an emotional read for me at times. As long as you are aware of that, and prepared, Elatsoe is otherwise a book I recommend without reservation. The diversity is rich and authentic, with strong, smart, kind characters that defy stereotypes in every way.

While reading Elatsoe was an impulse, reading my next Darcie Little Badger book will not be, and I can’t wait for her next release. My only regret about reading Elatsoe is that, having read it in the dumpster fire year 2020, I didn’t have the energy to review the book until months later, and am afraid I’m forgetting some of the ways in which Elatsoe was a terrific book. I would recommend this for adult and teen readers, and even advanced juvenile readers, as Ellie’s lack of sexual interest means that the contents are pretty “clean.” And who doesn’t love ghost dogs and magic?

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The Roommate

I never expected to read and love an erotic romance that is partially set in the adult entertainment world, but Rosie Danan’s The Roommate managed to pull it off. Danan also got me to love and care about a rich white society princess, a group of people for whom I have extremely low sympathy in general. But I loved this book. I loved the complex characters and the realistic relationships and the swoon-worthy romance and the laugh-out-loud lines and the steamy sex and the fiercely sex-positive feminist culture of Josh and Clara’s world. This was one of my “hero books” that kept me reading during the dark pandemic year of 2020, and my only regret is that it fell victim to my inability to write reviews at the time, and I’m only just reviewing it six months later. Josh and Clara’s story deserved better.

Josh is sweet and thoughtful and enthusiastic. He thinks outside the box, and leans into what he is good at, for which he feels no shame…mostly. He does have some baggage of his own. But not nearly as much as the uptight and repressed Clara, or as Josh calls her early in the book, “a pint-sized, tightly wound socialite”. She’s got a whole cart of baggage. Hermes, probably. Together, though, in living situations, friendship, work, and more, they slowly grow together, into confidence and responsibility and communication and trust and confidence. It’s an incredibly tender and real connection that I very much enjoyed reading.

The supporting cast isn’t bad. It took me awhile to warm up to Naomi, but I suppose that’s rather the point of her character. Naomi’s carpenter friend Wynn was fun. Clara’s friend Everett, the person who kicked off this whole story, is annoying, but that seemed not only intentional but necessary for the story. Josh’s family is sweet, and Clara’s black sheep of the family aunt is tough and likable all at once.

There’s not a lot of diversity in this story. I did appreciate Clara’s strong Black female boss. I appreciated the sex positive attitude. And there were LGBTQ+ supporting characters. But everyone in their circle was remarkably able-bodied and conventionally attractive and mostly white. And mentions of mental health were mostly reserved for slurs, mostly employed by Clara as self-criticisms: “crazy”, “insane”, etc., but also used by Josh, however affectionately, calling her a “nutjob,” for instance. I hope Danan’s future books are more intentional about using inclusive language and depicting diverse casts of characters.

I absolutely loved the Roommate, and how not only Josh and Clara’s relationship, but also their own personal growth and actualization, their ability to defy the expectations of others, was central to this story. It was hot and tender and raw and real and sometimes hilarious. Josh and Clara were just the protagonists I needed to keep me reading during a difficult time. I look forward to more books by Rosie Danan, which will hopefully increase the diversity of representation, while retaining all the heat and heart and beauty of this one. Highly recommended if you want a sweet but filthy erotic romance.

Thank you to #NetGalley and Berkley for letting me read a free digital #advancedcopy of #TheRoommate in exchange for my honest review.

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Strawberry Love

Strawberry Love by Cynthia Graubart is a beautiful little cookbook full of decadent, mouth-watering recipes involving strawberries. Unlike some themed cookbooks, all forty-five recipes here actually do include strawberries in some form, whether fresh, baked, cooked, dried, or in a sauce, jam, or marinade. I have never come so close to drooling on a cookbook just based on photography. (Thank God I controlled myself–that would have been bad for the tablet I use for reading my advanced copy books.). I bookmarked pages just as much for the photographs as the recipes. This food sounds amazing.

All that to say, this is very much a decadent cookbook. There’s a fresh salad or two, a strawberry gazpacho, and several meat and seafood dishes that involve strawberry sauces or jams. There’s even a couple of mixed drink recipes and a shrub involving strawberry syrup. But the vast majority of the recipes are indulgent baked goods, from strawberry orange muffins to strawberry bread with pecans to skillet strawberry cobbler to two kinds of strawberry pie to strawberry creamsicles to strawberry cream-filled chocolate roll to gluten free strawberry doughnuts. (That last recipe was an exciting one-off find for me, in an otherwise dairy and gluten heavy cookbook!) I think the most common ingredients outside of the strawberries themselves are sugar, heavy cream, and flour. Perfect for indulgent treats.

Some of the recipes, like shortcakes and stacked meringue cakes and lattice-topped pies, are a little more complex than the others, with directions that spill onto a second page. Many other recipes seem more easily accessible. There’s some useful strawberry specific and general kitchen advice at the beginning of the book. (I’m excited to try dehydrating some strawberries in my oven, for instance.) And there was only one recipe that really caught my attention in a dubious way–I’m not sold on the idea of strawberry salsa on fish tacos. Strawberry gazpacho, maybe. But strawberries in salsa? On fish tacos? I just don’t know about that.

Strawberry Love is just a wonderful little cookbook for the treat-loving omnivore in your life (or for yourself, of course!). Even if, like me, you can’t eat most of the treats, it’s worth a read just to pore over the gorgeous photographs of each recipe. And I’m excited to try the few recipes that will meet or can be tweaked to meet my dietary restrictions, like Strawberry Mint Sorbet, Strawberry Shrub, Strawberry Onion Jam, or those previously mentioned gluten free doughnuts! Thank you to #NetGalley and Storey Publishing for sharing a digital #advancedcopy of #StrawberryLove with me in exchange for an honest review.

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A Royal Affair

A Royal Affair is another solid and enjoyable installment in the Sparks and Bainbridge mystery series by the pseudonymous Allison Montclair. I enjoyed the first book in the series sufficiently to leap at a chance to get my hands on a digital advanced copy of this book, and was so excited to be approved. And, despite having a terrible time getting any reading done mid-pandemic, A Royal Affair was one of the few books I was able to pick up and read all the way through in just a few days. It transported me to a different place and era, one to which I’ve never given much consideration, with interesting and often likable characters. And the writing is a masterclass on how to catch the reader up with information from the first book without being obvious, clunky, or boring.

I will admit that was initially disappointed when I saw that this next book in the series dealt with the royal family, because I thought that might detract from the story for me. Real history and famous individuals wove into fictional narratives often distract me from the focus of the story, because I’m trying to parse out what is true and if the real people would act as they were written. I’m happy to say this worked out better in this book than I expected, partly because of minimal interaction with actual famous royals. It’s still not my favorite plot, especially since the prince they’re tasked to fictionally investigate turned out to be a rotten husband and father in real life, so it’s difficult to root for him. But it didn’t distract me sufficiently from the story to diminish my enjoyment, and during a difficult time, when I wasn’t able to read much, that was quite an accomplishment. And I did enjoy seeing a bit of how the Windsor’s household worked behind the scenes.

What I prefer about this series, over any royal drama though, is learning more about and getting a feeling for the characters’ WWII and post-WWII experiences. Sparks and Bainbridge, with their remarkably different lives and social circles, have had significantly different experiences of both eras, and their extended circle, including clients, broaden that perspective even more, from the bellowing female client deafened by her time as an “Ack-Ack Girl” shooting artillery at planes during the War, to Gwen’s increasing confidence and recovering mental health, to Sparks’ haunting secrets from the War, her resulting PTSD and loss of faith, and the relationships that sustained her through that time into her present. There’s also the suggestion of burgeoning romantic relationships for both of the main characters, which I enjoy, but also appreciate that they are not the focus of the story.

There are some excellent lines in this book, snappy dialogue and witty turns of phrase. Gwen, for instance, speaking of her mental health issues to a relative, says, “And now I quite like myself again. I’ve grown quite fond of me, in fact. I’ve decided that I’m going to stick with me for the long haul.” Or the time Sparks asks Gwen what they should do, since she’s “the one with the moral compass.” When Gwen protests, Sparks asks, “Have you recently become immoral without letting me know?”

This is very much a book about white London at the time. I don’t remember any ethnic diversity.
There is at least socioeconomic diversity represented, strong feminist themes, and acknowledgement throughout of the different ways disability manifests itself in the lives of survivors of trauma like WWII. There was also some implication of LGBTQ+ relationships, I believe. Not an extremely diverse book, but thoughtful for what it is.

I really have no excuse for having taken more than six months to review one of the “hero books” that got me through the pandemic summer of 2020, other than that my reviewing abilities recovered even more slowly that my reading ability. And trying to review a book this long after the fact, even with my Kindle notes, will never fully do it justice. So the best I can say is that I’m grateful I had it, to keep me reading, even just for a few days, that I enjoyed it, and that I look forward to the next installation in this series, whenever it becomes available. The historical and cultural elements of the story were fascinating, the mystery was engaging, and the characters were complex and life-like, as well as generally likeable. Thank you to #NetGalley and St Martin’s Press for granting me a free digital advanced copy of #ARoyalAffair to enjoy and review.

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Outside, Inside

Outside, Inside by LeUyen Pham is an absolutely gorgeous picture book that addresses life during this pandemic. It contrasts the busy streets of before with the silent streets now, acknowledges both the challenges of staying home and inside and the inability of some to stay safely home, with a mostly urban and suburban focus, with scenery that feels almost universal and therefore more widely relatable. The illustrations are beautiful, pleasing to the eyes, detailed, and diversely represented. The tender afterword from the author talks about how many of the vignettes on each page were inspired by real photography from the pandemic that she had seen, and that certainly has contributed to the authenticity of the art. One lovely line from Outside, Inside is from a four page spread: “On the outside, we are all different. / But on the inside, we are all the same.” Highly recommended for any adults with children in your lives, as a great conversation starter and reassurance for kids dealing with just as much uncertainty and anxiety right now as we adults are. And if you don’t have kids in your lives, it’s beautiful and worth a relaxing read anyway. We are in this together.

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The Unspoken Name

I was super excited to hear the blurb for The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood when it first became available on NetGalley. I have a soft spot for orcs/ half-orcs, as I think they get a really raw deal in most fantasy settings. And Csorwe sounded like a kickass young woman. I’m also a sucker for “escaped a religious cult and made my life into something I wanted.” So I was super psyched when I got approved for an advanced copy.

The story started off well. Csorwe and her rescuer Sethennai were interesting, and the world building was super creative and in-depth. There’s a bit of the Gideon the Ninth vibe going on (which made even more sense when I saw that this author mentioned Tamsyn Muir in the afterword, and they are apparently friendly.). But at some point the story started to lag for me, to the point that I put the book down, and forgot to pick it back up for several months. By that point, I’d read a lot of other books, and somehow the security aspect of the work Csorwe was doing in the scene where I left off had gotten confused in my head with the security work Murderbot was doing in All Systems Red, and I had to go back and skim re-read significant portions of The Unspoken Name to sort out the two stories and remember what was going on in this one.

I’m honestly not sure I would even have picked this back up, had I not been granted an arc, and had it not met a reading challenge prompt for which I didn’t have a lot of other appealing options. The story is a bit darker than I prefer, with some pretty gruesome violence inflicted on Csorwe throughout the book, and none of the other characters up to that point (about 40%) had really turned out to be very likable. But I had, and it was, so I did. I picked it back up at the last possible moment to count for my reading challenge, in the last week of December, and spent New Years Eve pushing myself through the remaining 40% of the book. I finished with 3 hours to spare, feeling exhausted, like I’d tried to swim through mud or something.

I did end up really liking Shuthmili and rooting for her to escape her oppressive circumstances and live a fulfilling life too. There were definitely exvangelical vibes to both Shuthmili and Csorwe’s stories to which I could relate a little too well. And while I didn’t LIKE Tal, I have to say that he was often hilarious. Larkwood wrote very very clever lines for and about him. He’s an awful person, but I laughed more in scenes involving him than in the rest of the book combined. “Tal never took one bite of a bad idea without polishing off the whole chunk,” for instance, or “It was loud and dumb and very likely to hurt, so, of course, he agreed.” I also appreciated the LGBTQ+ rep. Pretty much all major characters were queer, which was a pleasant surprise.

So, overall, this wasn’t a bad read, but I also didn’t love it. I thought it dragged in many different spots. I see that it’s listed as the first in a series, and I wonder if a second book would be faster paced and less tedious, because much of the world building would already be accomplished. And I am mildly curious about where the story would go from here. Probably not enough to pick it up any time soon, though. Not a book I’d be quick to recommend unless someone was looking for a very specific story aesthetic. Either way, I appreciate #NetGalley and Tor Books giving a digital #advancedcopy in exchange for an honest review. Both quotations are from the advanced copy and are subject to change

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Great British Vegan

Great British Vegan by Aimee Ryan is an absolutely charming addition to vegan cookbooks collections. The title is obviously a play on the famous British show of the same name, and if you’ve watched GBBO, you’ll be familiar with many of the dishes, especially the baked desserts, mentioned throughout this book. The food photography is stunningly lovely and appetizing, the illustrations are charming, and almost every single recipe has a beautiful color photo accompaniment. No, the recipes aren’t particularly healthful. They’re certainly not whole food plant based, and are often heavy on flours and fats and sugars and vegan substitutes. But for a cosy treat, they sound perfect!

The book is very helpful, from offering a list of seasonal produce at the beginning of the book, to mentioning gluten free substitutes for some recipes to offering suggestions for plant-based products (Those are from mostly British companies, for what that’s worth.) . There’s plenty of recipes for building block ingredients that can be used in recipes throughout the book, from “bacon bits” and “crispy bacon strips” to easy custard and cashew cream and cheese sauces. Measurements are provided in both grams and ounces/pounds/etc.

I’m a bit more limited in which recipes I can use, because the author uses oats heavily, and I can’t eat even gluten free oats. I also prefer not to eat the amount of refined fat many of these recipes call for. But even so, even for me, there were many recipes that sounded both safe and delightful, from Leftovers Bubble and Squeak, to Cider and Bean Stew with Herby Dumplings, Cheesy Pea Soup, Brussel Sprouts with Chestnuts and Bacon Bits, Beefy Mushroom Stew with Cauliflower Mash, Golden Roasted Parsnips and Carrots, three kinds of gravy, Artichoke Fishcakes with Dill Mayo, and Beer Battered Tofish and Chips with mushy peas (I’d have to do some tweaking on that last one for it to fit my restrictions, but the idea of laying sheets of seaweed across chunks of tofu to create both the skin feel and ocean flavor of fish really seems like it could be amazing.). There’s also mouthwatering dessert recipes that would be difficult to tweak to my standards, but gosh it might be worth trying, from Lemon Drizzle Loaf and Earl Grey Tea Loaf, to Christmas Cake and Chocolate Orange Christmas Pudding and Jaffa Cakes and Eton Mess.

Overall, a delightful cookbook, full of gorgeous food photography, mouthwatering, if not super healthy, recipes, and familiar favorite British dishes perfect for cosy treats. As long as you can eat gluten free oats, many of the recipes can be made gluten free. Perfect for vegan or vegan-curious cooks, especially if they’re also Anglophiles and/or big fans of the Great British Bake Off. An enjoyable browsing experience regardless. Thank you to #NetGalley and Quarto for letting me read a temporary digital #advancedcopy of #GreatBritishVegan in exchange for my honest review.

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